“Ya better say your prayers, ya flea-bitten varmint … I’m-a-gonna blow ya to smithereenies” From the wise words of Yosemite Sam to your author’s humble keyboard it's hard to find truer words. If you haven’t guessed it from my apparent affinity for Looney Tune’s quotes today we are talking about varmint hunting.
Courtesy Warner Brothers
Varmint hunting is unique in its own right. Most of the time varmint hunting isn’t necessarily done for meat, but for what’s basically pest control. Don’t get me wrong, some varmints are quite tasty… But many of them are complete and utter pests. They often breed so much, and so fast you must hunt them to just control their population.
Varmint hunting isn’t typically associated with the seriousness of deer, elk, moose, or bear hunting. It’s often more sought for the challenge than the trophy. Outside of the challenge many do it simply for pest control.
While varmint hunting may be a necessity, that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. We’ve picked our top 5 favorite varmint and the calibers and guns perfect for blowing them to “smithereenies.”
Good ole’ tree rats, the bane of many a bird feeder. Squirrels are one of the few varmints that are nice and tasty. They can be gamey, but toss them into a stew or fry them in a cast iron pan and you’ll have a nice dinner. Squirrels can be a major pest for those in the countryside. They can chew their way into attics, destroy insulation, and leave a mess. They are nightmares in a barn, especially if you keep corn, horse feed, and similar feeds stored there.
He Looks a little squirelly - Courtesy US Fish and Wildlife
So, you gotta take ‘em out. Squirrels can be easily dealt with a 22 LR but I’ve always stuck to a shotgun for safety reasons. Since squirrels tend to keep to the trees I don’t want to be shooting rifles in the air and risk a miss. The old adage of what goes up must come down is important to remember. The 410 is my preference due to its small size and low recoil. You don’t need anything more powerful than a lightly loaded 410 and good point shooting skills. The 410 is strong enough to kill them, but weak enough where it won’t damage the squirrel past the point of edibility.
The Budget Gun
The classic budget shotgun has always been and likely always will be the single shot shotgun. The H&R Pardner series has been the go to choice for cheap, but well-made single shots for decades and I’d hate to break from tradition. This super lightweight shotgun is easy to point and is perfect for younger shooters. It has a 3-inch chamber, is hammer fired, and features classic wooden furniture. It’s also a sub 200-dollar gun.
The Fun Gun
The Mossberg 500 in 410 is hard to beat if you need to take multiple shots in a short amount of time. The pump action ensures you aren’t dealing with a finicky semi auto action, while providing 5 rounds of rapid fire potential. It’s easy to pump and dump on multiple squirrels and the ribbed barrel and bead sight keeps things simple. The gun has a 3-inch chamber, a 24 inch barrel, and a full choke. It might as well be called the squirrel blaster.
Oh coyotes, they were one of the first animals I successfully hunted. They just happened to be hunting a friend's calves and terrorizing the chickens. This is common coyote behavior and they are spreading fast across the southeast United States. They are vicious scavengers that can even be a threat to young children and domestic animals. Coyotes breed very fast, and if you’re hunting them you want something that takes them down without issue. A wounded coyote can be a very dangerous animal. You want a round that can take them out without much effort.
Coyote Courtesy US Fish and Game
Coyotes are also pretty dang suspicious of humans and tend to be skittish. It’s a lot easier to hit them from a hundred yards and beyond than trying to get them in shotgun or rimfire range. Plus, it's a lot more challenging the further out you go. I like the 22-250 for popping coyotes. It has enough oomph to take a coyote down with a single shot to almost any part of the upper body. It’s also less affected by wind than similar cartridges. It’s flat nature and hard-hitting power makes it a great coyote round out to even 500 yards.
The Savage Axis series are renowned for their quality and affordable price. You aren’t getting a rifle neutered to save a few dimes. You are getting a very competent rifle equipped with a free-floating barrel, sling swivel studs, a steel magazine, and their silky smooth bolt action. The rifle is drilled and tapped for a scope mount and ready to terrorize the next coyote that has the unfortunate luck to meet you and your Savage.
Lever gun? More like lever fun. Okay I’ll put the lame marketing jokes away now. In all seriousness the Browning BLR is one of my favorite lever guns. Instead on using a tube to hold ammo they use a rotary magazine that allows the gun to use spitzer (IE pointy) based cartridges. The BLR’s lever action is smooth and rapid. The 22-250 is a short round so there isn’t a lot of movement necessary to work the action. This gives you a lightweight, easy shooting gun with the ability to cycle rounds rapidly if needed.
Prairie dogs hardly seem to be a pest, but just a hair of research tells you just how destructive these creatures can be. It’s not uncommon for large animals like cows and horses to stumble into a prairie dog den. This often results in an injured animal, and some serious vet bills, or having to put the animal down. Prairie dogs also breed faster than rabbits and spread almost like a disease across the land. Taking them down fast and hard is the name of the game.
Courtesy US Fish and Game
Prairies dogs are basically the same size of squirrels, but live on the ground. You won’t get too close without having them scatter to their den. Hitting them from a hundred yards off with a good rimfire rifle is the way to go. The 17 HMR is an ultra-modern rimfire round from the minds at Hornady. It’s flat shooting, fast as lightning, and smashes into prairie dogs with ease. 17 HMR offers much better ballistics than 22 LR and is a more modern choice with more modern hunting projectiles offered. It hits harder, shoots flatter, and flies faster than 22 LR ever will.
The Mossberg 817 is about a cheap of a 17 HMR as you can find. This bolt action repeating rifle comes in at under 200 dollars and for that price it's a steal. It has a short 14.25-inch length of pull and weighs only 4.8 pounds. This makes it an excellent youth rifle and a lightweight prairie dog reaper. It’s ready for a scope with its Weaver style scope bases. This magazine fed rifle has a unique pistol grip and stock combo and even comes with a forward picatinny rail for mounting a bipod.
I like lever guns, and the fact that Henry introduced one in 17 HMR wasn’t lost on me. The Henry Varmint Express holds 11 rounds of 17 HMR allowing you to load it on Sunday and shoot it all week long. The adjustable semi buckhorn rear sight and beaded front sight makes it easy to split prairie dogs down the middle. Also, I chose the octagonal barrel model because let’s face it, looks matter. Get your wild west fantasy on and send them varmint packing.
Rabbit is our second tasty treat on the list. Great for cooking in the crock pot or in a stew as flavoring. Rabbit are one of the easiest creatures I’ve ever hunted. Often, it’s as simple as walking, watching one run, and then picking it off when it stops ten feet later. Rabbit are like prairie dogs in the fact that they breed fast and can invade an area quickly. They love to destroy crops, and will eat a home garden to bits and pieces.
He Looks Rascally… Courtesy US Fish and Game
Rabbits are social creatures, and it’s not unusual to find them in groups of 2 or 3. You need an easy shooting, common caliber that’s small enough to avoid damaging the meat of a target. I like the 22 LR. There’s a few reasons, first it’s close range, so the long-range potential of the 17 HMR simply isn’t needed here. Second, the semi auto designs are affordable, widely available and reliable. The third reason is 22 LR is cheap, and easy to buy in bulk.
Well this one was incredibly easy. Of course, I am going to choose the Ruger 10/22 as my 22 LR rifle of choice. The Ruger 10/22 is a lightweight, easy shooting rifle that’s ubiquitous. You can build and accessorize the 10/22 to your heart's content. The rotary magazine and finely constructed action ensures reliability. In my opinion there really isn’t a finer semi-auto 22 LR rifle for plinking, target practice and hunting. Plus, it’s extremely affordable and comes in a variety of different configurations.
If the 10/22 is the finest semi auto 22 LR rifle I couldn’t possibly suggest another rifle right? So, I won’t and take an alternative route and suggest the Browning Buckmark Contour model. This semi auto 22 LR handgun is plenty accurate for popping rabbits, but using a handgun is always more challenging than a rifle. The Contour model is equipped with a scope rail across the top which is perfect for a red dot. The Browning Buckmark is an easy shooting and reliable little gun that gives a new edge to rabbit hunting.
Hogs aren’t traditionally treated as a varmint animal, but in the southeastern United States their behavior and the laws regarding hunting them are becoming more varmint orientated. The feral hog population is exploding in the South East and its moving north every year. States are deregulating the hunting of these animals and making it legal year-round to exterminate them. Feral hogs destroy everything, from crops to yards. They are aggressive and can easily harm people and domestic animals.
Example of a Feral Hog in Florida - US Fish and Wildlife
You need something potent to take them down and you have a number of choices. I like the 7.62x39mm. It’s a moderately powerful caliber that’s excellent for taking shots under 300 yards. There are plenty of different rifle options for the round. Its moderate recoil makes follow up shots possible, which is important because hogs rarely travel alone. You also may need that quick follow up shot if a hog decides to charge you.
Caliber 7.62 x 39
Confession time, I love CZs. CZ has a brilliant and subtle marketing tool that boils down to “Come for the famous pistols, stay for the fantastic rifles.” The CZ 527 Carbine is one fantastic rifle. It’s built for hunting and is one of the finest rifles out there for under a grand. The CZ 527 is a bolt action rifle, with an 18.5-inch barrel and a 5 round magazine. This is one of the few bolt action rifles that comes equipped with iron sights, and is still scope ready. It’s a great brush gun, and with its iron sights you can hit a close-range target fast and accurately.
I know AKs aren’t hunting rifles I get it. But listen to my logic. Hogs are an invading force and as hunters we are brave partisans who must resist the tyranny of the hog. Why not use a gun renowned for its presence in the hands of partisans throughout time? That same gun just so happens to be a great hog gun. Why? It’s fast shooting, accurate enough and perfect for dealing with angry hogs. The Arsenal SAM-7 is one of the most well-made AKs on the market and if you are going big, go really big. Just remember after shooting a hog with an AK it’s mandatory you hold your gun above your head and shout, “Wolverines!”
Hunting varmints is a blast, both literally and figuratively. Having the right gun and right gear makes it easy to be successful. Varmint hunting is a little less serious and to me more fun than deer hunting. It’s perfect for new hunters or someone tired of the deer blind. You are also providing a service to the environment by controlling the population of pests. So, Grab a Gun, grab some ammo, and get out there.